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Best Overall Intermountain Project: Natural History Museum of Utah Reflects Its Landscape

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Photo by Perrenoud Productions, Courtesy of Big-D Construction
The natural patina of the museum's copper-alloy exterior and the design of its internal 'canyon' echo the building's foothills location.
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2012 Best Overall Project

Intermountain Region

2010 Best Project

Government/Public Buildings Category

Natural History Museum of Utah

Salt Lake City

The Natural History Museum of Utah's new $102-million home in the Rio Tinto Center began welcoming visitors in mid-November. The museum, administered by the University of Utah, sits on a 17-acre site on the upper southeastern edge of campus with sweeping views of the Salt Lake Valley.

The 163,000-sq-ft building is home to a collection of roughly 1.2-million artifacts, including items from Utah's Native American tribes, regional flora and fauna specimens and the state's sizable number of dinosaur fossils.

The building is composed primarily of exposed concrete with unique copper-alloy cladding. The natural patina of the copper blends with the hillside and gives the building a stratified but fractured appearance, evoking the sandstone deserts and rugged mountains of Utah.

The museum is built in steps up the hillside, with exhibits featuring Utah's geography and the history of its people, animals and plant life on different levels. The exhibit spaces are located on the south end of the building, with laboratory, storage and office space on the north end.

The two wings are connected by bridges over a three-story "canyon" that serves as a central gathering and way-finding element. Floor-to-ceiling windows span the west-facing end of the canyon, providing visitors with expansive views west to the Salt Lake Valley, the Great Salt Lake and Oquirrh Mountains, home to the Kennecott copper mine, which produced the ore for the building's cladding.

"Ecstatic is not too strong a word for how we feel about this building," says Sarah George, the museum director, who was part of the project's collaborative design team. "It is beautiful, but it also functions so well. The building we were in before was designed as a library, and there were so many things we could not do there. Now, to be in a space that is designed for us, is just wonderful."

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